Wednesday 15 August 2018

Neil Francis: Leinster must bring their 'A' game, or else it's adios

Blues shouldn't book Bilbao tickets just yet because it's red for danger with Scarlets

Leinster's Luke McGrath
Leinster's Luke McGrath
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

In a week where we saw the power of sponsors and the financial straitjacket they placed on sporting bodies by their patronage, maybe just a cursory nod at the way things are.

There are many reasons why Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding lost their jobs but whether anyone likes to admit it or not pressure from sponsors was a prime driver. Terms and conditions do apply.

Glad to return to rugby matters after the circus has concluded. The bookies had the Champions Cup final of Scarlets versus Racing at 5/1 which is not off the planet! Despite this, I did check on prices for Bilbao just in case it was an all-Ireland final. A great occasion for the country. Some of the sponsors were looking to charge me €805 to get to Bilbao for the weekend.

If you were going the other way - to Dublin from Bilbao - it would cost you €52.79 one way. If you were going to go to Los Angeles on the same weekend, it would cost you just €437 return.

That is before you buy a pint of overpriced San Miguel in Bilbao or lay your weary head on a soft pillow provided by your friendly hotel chain at €510 per room per night. 'Doblar sobre tocat los dedos de los pies' is the Spanish translation, I believe, for bend over and touch your toes. I have made an application to one financial institution - another sponsor - for a mortgage in order to pay for the flights and accommodation in Bilbao for said weekend.

Maybe I should wait! Odds of 5/1 for the dream pairing of Racing and Scarlets is the final that all these greedy bastardos deserve. A capacity of 53,000 at the San Mames - how close would they get to 25,000 for a Scarlets v Racing final? Leinster v Munster? A full house and everyone makes money - will they both get there?

Belching

Of the two Irish teams, I think Leinster will have the greater difficulty qualifying. I have said it before - it is far easier to beat a great team on the wane than a good one on the up.

Saracens' engine was belching smoke halfway through their encounter with Leinster in the Aviva - Scarlets engine is humming. Both Saracens and Scarlets would always fancy their chances of turning over Leinster on their patch. Now, Scarlets will feel as if they're primed to win this game and while Leinster may not utter it in public, they would have paid huge coin for anyone else in Dublin rather than the Welsh.

They are a bloody dangerous side and they know how to trouble Leinster. The penultimate league games last weekend never really mean a huge amount before the big semi-final match-ups.

Both Leinster and Scarlets put out a reserve XV to keep their stars fresh. The maths tells you that Scarlets won't go to Thomond Park the following week and bonus-point Munster and make up a 126-point differential on Leinster.

The blue side have already qualified with home advantage. Llanelli had already ceded that and they travelled to Edinburgh to fulfil the fixture. Leinster at home to Benetton Treviso and with one or two players looking for a spot in the squad on the big day - those players needed big performances. They never materialised.

To lose to Treviso at home is one thing - to lose the way they did is another. To lose the week before the biggest game of the season was quite something else! If it's just a nothing game then why bother playing in it? Mentally, precisely where was everyone before and during the game?

The Lions always talk about the way the mid-week team need to perform if a Test match or a match against one of the big provinces is lost. Either keep the show on the road or get the show back on the road.

A loss to Benetton can be significant on many levels. A reality check is too easy a fallback. At this stage of the season nobody wants to be heading back to the drawing board - particularly after a loss to a team as lowly as Treviso.

Is the mood which Leinster took out on the field contagious? Hopefully not. It does remind me of the way Leinster took the field against Scarlets in the Pro12 semi-final last season. A loss like that tells everyone that Leinster are not unbeatable in Dublin.

There are a couple of things that worry me about Leinster. How they deal with adversity? How they cope when they are points down and not getting any traction in the game? What happens when plan A doesn't work? In fairness, their plan B worked well against Exeter in both pool games but it is not for the faint of heart.

The thing about Llanelli is that they may well get beaten - out-muscled and overrun by the Leinster machine but they have a readiness to sacrifice and they play with valour and vigour. A dauntless spirit.

They are as fit if not fitter than Leinster and they will stand toe to toe with them for the full 80 - they are not afraid of Leinster, the very opposite. I think Scarlets coach Wayne Pivac can undo Leinster again. This is what bothers me - could Leinster develop another speed wobble in the April/May corridor?

Invincible for most of the season and suddenly an underperformance or an inability to react under the sort of pressure they have not encountered all season.

There are a couple of key sectors which if Scarlets get the advantage here they will win the game.

I think injury, selection and match fitness are key in a number of areas; if Luke McGrath is fit - match-fit - and he lasts the full game, Leinster can win.

If he is not selected and Jamison Gibson-Park comes in, that is a blow for Leinster.

Johnny Sexton has been 'Roy of the Rovers' all season and the rest will have done him good, but I think Sexton plays his best rugby when he has a continuous run in any team. The match in the Aviva will be his first game in 20 days. If he takes up his form that he finished off with in the 65 minutes against Saracens, great - better still if it was his form against England. As always, he is the key man.

He did not play well in the semi-final last year - let's hope that doesn't happen again.

I think Scarlets - if McGrath doesn't play - will have a better pairing at half-back. Gareth Davies is a vastly superior model to the departing Rhys Webb of Ospreys who always seemed to get the nod at national level over the Scarlets man.

Davies is razor sharp and controls the game from 9 for Scarlets as opposed to 10. All the decisions are made by him. Davies is a potent try-scorer and has electric pace - he is always a threat and can dominate the scrum-half battle even if McGrath plays.

Scummy Eddie Jones did a job on Rhys Patchell prior to the England-Wales game and the Scarlets number 10 underperformed and got the shepherd's hook.

Imperious

He is international class and has looked imperious at club level this season. He takes the ball right to the gain-line and is also a regular try-scorer - whether from full-back or out-half. If these two get enough quick ball, they have the smarts and the ability to do untold damage.

The other key battle is in the second-row. Scott Fardy played well against Saracens but at this stage of his career he is a second-row and that was what he looked against Saracens - a really good second-row playing out of position on the flank. If Fardy and James Ryan pack down in Leinster's second-row and they play as well as they can, Leinster will have an advantage which could win them the game.

The tussle between Tadhg Beirne and James Ryan is irresistible. Ryan got huge plaudits in the Six Nations but Beirne has been the best second-row in the Pro14 and he won't lack for any motivation on Saturday.

Leinster won't get any change out of this Llanelli pack and unless they play their best game of the season this Saturday, the Scarlets will take them.

Irish Independent

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